As noted yesterday, the subject of Industry 4.0, and in particular the way in which it will change both manufacturing operational models and the cloud service infrastructure needed to support them, was the underlying theme of the recent Eco-Connect conference put on by Chinese comms, cloud and ICT giant Huawei.
It was therefore good to see that the company use both keynotes and other sessions to give customers and partners plenty of space to air their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences as the `I-4.0’ train starts to roll in earnest.
Not least amongst these is the assumption by many that Industry 4.0 is a real `thing’, some kind of official, global entity sanctioned by some official body…..somewhere. This was directly addressed by Prof Dr Detlef Zuehlke, executive chairman of SmartFactory KL in Mannhein, Germany:
It is interesting that Industry 4.0 not a standard, it is just a marketing term; it has never really been defined. In practice we already have IoT and most things are already connected. But it is possible to think of Industry 4.0 meaning an environment in which everything is connected – including people. Technology is not going to be enough on its own, it needs the market as well. The fundamental model of design somewhere/make somewhere else is going to change. The demand now is for much greater customisation and that means real time local manufacturing. That in turn means factories will need to change to cope with the fact that it will be difficult to know what customers might order tomorrow.
He suggested, therefore, that this will mean greater use of cyber-physical systems, all connected and part of the internet, all re-programmable and all interconnectable. To use a well-tried analogy, devices become like Lego Bricks, even when they come from different vendors. They will have to fit together and interoperate.
They will need to interrogate each other to find their properties and how to use them. So sub-systems will become increasingly autonomous in operation, he added:
But this will also need not just standardised communications but also standardised interoperability frameworks, a reference admin shell and standardised interfaces.
SmartFactory already has a research and demo centre supported by 50 member companies. Here, attempts are made to bring research into real life. It also has a growing range of IoT products that can be bought.
Logistics in the front line
With the growth of Industry 4.0 companies like DHL are in one way well placed, as the company’s Vice president of IT Planning and Architecture, Javier Esplugas Cuadrado, observed:
There is a lot of capital from investors flowing into logistics because there is going to be an obvious demand for more of it as more customers buy online and then wait for delivery. So logistics companies need clouds to communicate and manage these new environments.
There is, of course, a directly customer-focused downside to the logistics business now – any and every hint of a poor customer experience will not just be reported back to the service provider and the vendor, but also to all possible social media outlets as well.
As he observed, digitalisation is bringing with it growing levels of `digital Darwinism’, and companies that cannot react to the market quickly enough and/or give their customers poor experiences of using their products or services will be most at risk. In that context, logistics companies stand right on the front line.
Cuadrado sees a number of trends coming down the line to help improve the digitalisation process and improve customer experience. Some of these are not directly customer-facing but instead are designed to make the staff more efficient and productive. One of these is, within DHL, is Efibot, an autonomous truck that follows a warehouse stock picker, towing one or more trailers into which the picker places items selected according to a specific pick list. Once the required number of picking tasks is completed Efibot automatically takes the picked goods to one of the packing stations.
Even drones are starting to be used within the warehouses to carry out visual checks on variety of issues, such as conducting checks on stock levels, while IoT is already finding useful application in the delivery of more flexible Just in Time management of stock delivery from and to customers. Cuadrado explains:
Blockchain will also be crucial in the delivery management process, ensuring customers know every stage of the delivery process from the manufacturer onwards, and which operations have had a hand in delivering the product they ordered.
Will robots lead or follow?
One sector which can expect to be a hot breeding ground for Industry 4.0 developments is automated manufacturing – aka robots. One of the presenters at Eco-Connect, Rohitashwa Pant, senior VP at German-based industrial robot maker, KUKA, sees them becoming the lynchpin around which many industrial ecosystems are built in future.
He is keen to see the company move beyond just making robots and building a rounded out manufacturing ecosystem with itself as the lynchpin. Inevitably, that means he also sees the company becoming a software company rather than a robot company.
As this objective is emerging at a time when so many changes in industry are occurring at the same time, he admits to feeling paranoid that KUKA, a disrupter of traditional manufacturing processes, may be the one to find itself disrupted, said Pant:
Right now we can’t see anything coming, but that is exactly the point. We won’t get disrupted by another robotics company, we will get disrupted by another industry that suddenly becomes a competitor. And things can change so fast, big companies like Google can suddenly buy a company.
This does raise an interesting question as to whether the disruptor for a company like KUKA might actually come from within that ecosystem community. Within that ecosystem, a by-product of Industry 4.0 is that the lines of functional demarcation can tend to get thin, and a bit wavey. For example, where are the lines between industrial robotics in manufacturing, ERP systems managing all aspects of the production, and CRM systems managing every aspect of the sales process?
Each of those three could quite sensibly be not just part of a broad ecosystem headed by one of the other two, but also a wholly owned and integrated part of their business. It is very easy for example, to see industrial robotics as a subsidiary end of a much wider, richer CRM process. Pant agrees that such a possibility exists, but feels that OT businesses have a secret weapon available:
People talk about IT, the SAPs of this world, and OT, the operational technologies. But the OT providers have one advantage over IT companies, and that is trust. We are the ones allowed onto the shop floor, and you can’t just move in there and be trusted without having done the years there, creating something. We can leverage that trust, and therefore have a better opportunity of disrupting the others, because we have the trust and have shown that we can bend two bits of metal together.
That same issue also plays, for now at least, against the place of open source systems getting to be more established in the Industry 4.0 world. He suggested that it would eventually have a role to play but that it still had to prove its enterprise strength where industrial organisation can trust it with their hundreds of billions of Dollars investment.
The company’s goal of becoming a software company does suggest it will have to open up to standards, or at least APIs, so it can interact with and probably manage robots from other vendors. But could that mean that much of Industry 4.0 could founder on the fact that end user customers want to keep their production processes as secret as possible, and such openness would be seen as countering that. Pant argues:
True, but there are two points here. My boss always says that there is an ‘egosystem’, the big players that say, ‘I don’t care what others are saying, all of my data stays here and I am big enough’.’ I totally respect that, and if you look at the bigger enterprises they can take it all internal. But in Germany there are hundreds of thousands of Mittelstand companies [generally grossing up to around €5bn and usually specialising a specific market sectors, such as KUKA itself] which are world beaters at what they do. They also tend to avoid such hubris and are generally more practical. That is where we see the drivers of Industry 4.0 emerging.
Take KUKA: it is not the robots that make us successful, it is the robots together with all the different partners we have. And to make that happen, we had to open up so we could speak to these guys. It’s up to us now to break the barriers.
Don’t forget the people
An interesting final shot came from Rolf Schuman, Global General Manager for Platform and Innovation at SAP’s Cloud operation:
We have developed a single sentence which encompasses Industry 4.0 and the digitalisation processes that underpin it. Digitalisation means intelligently connecting people, things and businesses’. We feel that all applications now should be tested against this one sentence.
As an example of the test in action, he selected the word `people’. At first glance, of course, this connectivity is quite obvious, the full-duplex connection of people with other people and machines with mobile devices and, indeed, any expression of ICT in action. But that is just humans as conscious drivers or receivers of other processes: what about people as units of behaviour and related information?
Here, it is now possible to derive and collect behavioural information – both individual and collective – that has real value to both the producers of goods and services, and the humans as recipients and customers. Shoes, for example, can now be fitted with sensors tha7 report back on the (known) user’s activity, such as the amount of walking, running and standing still. This helps not only in the design of better shoes, but also with their marketing to potential customers that can be shown to need them. And as a side benefit, the supplier probably already holds the customer’s relevant credit card details.
The level of information that can already be derived from wearable IoT and observational analysis has already led to SAP being asked by the German international soccer team to predict where opposition footballers would shoot when taking penalties. He even went so far as to the predict that Germany would win the next World Cup, though failed to put any money on it.
It is still early days for Industry 4.0. The good Professor Zuehlke pointed out that most of the world’s vendors in this sector had not yet reached the peak of inflated expectations on the famed Gartner Hype Cycle. And while Germany is ahead in I-4.0 development work it is only just starting the slide down into the trough of disillusionment.
So we are still at the point where most vendors are speaking much more in hope than from experience. Some of what was outlined here may come good, while some will fall by the wayside. Some new industry sectors – automated air-traffic control systems for intra-warehouse drone management for example – have yet to be developed. It has to be said, however, that any airing of the issues surrounding a developing marketplace, while it is developing, can only be seen as good thing, so it is to be hoped that Huawei continue this conference for a few years at least.
Image credit - Own